anghara (anghara) wrote,

"Please, sir, what does "the end" mean...?"

So you want to write a book, eh?

For those whose acquaintance with one of those objects has been confined, so far, to holding the finished product hefted off a bookstore's shelf packed with other examples and flipping through the perfect pages and thinking, hell, I can do this, how hard can it be... that's great. Now take off those rose-tinted spectacles, and put on these other ones. Yes, these, the ones I'm holding out. They aren't so pretty, and the lenses look weird but that's because they see through appearances and show you what's really there.

Meg Cabot writes of what you can see through those spectacles, and she references Maureen Johnson, who writes some more about it. But here's a few summary points for you.

1. You write a book. Do remember that at this stage it's no more than a sheaf of loose paper, neat in your computer, the printouts of the last four versions of the beast overflowing in untidy piles on your desk and your floor. You finally come up with what is known as a "first" draft, which is no more than the first draft you consider to be passable in the sense that it is telling the story you want to tell in something resembling the way you want to tell it.

2. You revise the first draft, and you find that you have a character who was supposed to have left the building three chapters ago having what is really a VERY important conversation with someone in the final scene of the book. You rewrite to fix. You discover that in the rewrite you forgot to take out six separate references to the character's leaving which are still littering the manuscript. You rewrite to fix. You discover that in the rewrite... you rewrite to fix... rinse and repeat. You are finally, wrung out and exhausted, in possession of what is now the "final" draft. You package it up and you send it out to your editor.

3. Final draft. HAH.

4. Your editor sends you an editorial letter. It starts out with, "This is a LOVELY novel! I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and I think it's shaping up very nciely." (shaping up? shaping UP????) "But..." (you heard that but coming didn't you) "here's a few suggestions to improve it." What follows is six single-spaced pages. Of editorial suggestions. And you read them through and you do triage - THIS third I disagree with and I will not change, THIS third I'll look at with an eye to tweaks here on there, and THIS third - oh, but this is what breaks the heart - THIS third consists of things that are now jumping up out of the MS and hitting me upside the head and screaming, "Why am I still in here? WHy didn't YOU see this problem?"

5. You go through the MS and you fix. You send the MS back to editor. If you and it are lucky, the editor accepts this version, and the book is sent into copy editing.

6. The copy edited manuscript arrives back on your doorstep, like a bad penny. Now, if you're a career writer or want to be, you're hip deep in the big muddy with your NEXT book at this stage - which you now have to drop mid-stream and haul you mind back to this old MS and get your head around it. And a copy edit MS is, if you haven't seen one before, frightening. It's gone through three pairs of hands - the Chief Honcho editor, who leaves her comments in blue pencil; the in-house copy editor, who leaves hers in red pen; the freelance copyeditor, who leaves hers in green - and it's bristling with post-its on every edge like there's a post-it monster in there howling to get out. So you gird your loins and you take a pen that's a different colour from everyone else and you get your own set of post-its and you sit down with this thing. You go through it, often snarling as you notice that one of the copy editors (we'll call them Thing 1 and Thing 2) have completely missed your point somewhere, or have tried to recast a sentence and have managed to do so in a manner that completely reverses its meaning for you, or, if you've grown up with proper British punctuation, have changed everything to weird American ways that makes your hackles stand up because it just looks so wrong to YOUR eyes. And trust me, those six references that you thought you had expunged, concerning that character who left before having that conversation in the final scene? You may THINK you've expunged them, and you probably have, but Thing 1 or Thing 2 or both will find three other instances which were hiding behind walls of gerunds or prepositions and yelling, "that one! take that one! he's more egregious!" The copy edit is a drama fest, and by the time you're done you are a wrung-out dishcloth and you are looking at your precious novel and it looks like a bag of incomprehensible drivel (it must be, else why so many post its?) and you wonder who in the right mind would ever want to read this thing let alone shell out good money to BUY it. But anyway, you send the copyedited beast back - and it vanishes into the maw of the publishing machine.

7. It pupates, over the space of several months, into another animal called the "page proofs". Technically, you aren't supposed to find anything major wrong in the page proofs - because fixing it now actually costs money. This is supposed to be the cleaned-up and spruced-up result of that pathetic post-itted wounded animal that was your copy edit. But then you find that somehow they've missed a sentence or a paragraph in the proofs, and inserting the missing stuff back will shift the whole chapter (sometimes two, if the timing and the space where they did the oopsie is particularly badly placed). And there are typos you could swear weren't there before. And there are things in there that don't appear in your original, so it must have been something that happened at the copy edit stage, but you must have been too wrung out to notice or care by that point because you would have never agreed to that change if you had been in your right mind. But this is starting to look clean, like a finished book, and you're suddenly *reading it as a story again*, and if you're lucky even liking it a little. You put aside the new project you're still in first-draft stage at, and you go through your proofs with a fine tooth comb, and you hope you found everything, and you send it back again.

8. The galleys are bound, and distributed for advance reviews. You sit at home chewing your fingernails and trying to remember what your other project was all about.

9. In the fullness of time, the book - the actual book - is printed, and distributed to stores where you might encounter one in the wild.

You pick it up off the shelf, and you open it up, and you look at the pages. And you see four different drafts of that particular section of narrative, and you see the page scrawled over with indecipherable notes, and you see copy-edit commentary in blue, red, green, purple and orange ink, and you see post-its sticking out at every angle, and you see the place where they put back the missing sentences and wonder if they put them ALL back so you scour to make sure, and you see the hands that this thing has passed through - yours, the editor's the plethora of copy editors', the printer, the binder, the bookseller - and then you look up and there's a reader and a would-be writer and that person is holding your book in their hands and looking at it and going, "How hard can this be...?"

I would not, probably could not, do anything else but write. But the next time you wonder just how hard it can be... find one of the tribe, and ask to have the birth of a book explained one more time. If, after that, you still want in... welcome. Just be VERY careful what you wish for,..
Tags: birth of books

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